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Walter Knoll Boosts Accuracy for Product Shipment, Returns

The German furniture company is using a UHF passive RFID system to track when its products are manufactured, stored at its warehouse, shipped or returned, increasing the accuracy and efficiency of its supply chain.
By Claire Swedberg
Apr 09, 2013

German furniture manufacturer Walter Knoll AG & Co. reports that it has gained accuracy and efficiency in its shipping and receiving of goods, thanks to a radio frequency identification system installed at the company's Herrenberg manufacturing site and Mötzingen warehouse. The solution, provided by German systems integrator avus Services, employs RFID readers made by Motorola Solutions and Feig Electronic.

Walter Knoll produces up to 70,000 chairs, sofas, tables and other residential and office furniture items annually, and then sells those goods via dealers and showrooms worldwide. Approximately 3,000 pieces of its furniture are shipped to consumers who wish to try them out prior to purchase, or to furniture shops on a consignment basis, to be returned if unsold. If the trial or consigned items are not purchased, they are returned to Walter Knoll's warehouse after a specific period of time, and are added to a pool of sample furniture. Each piece must be inspected upon return, and its condition recorded and entered in the system—for example, if there is any damage to a specific item, this information is collected and stored.

Managing the location and subsequent shipping of new furniture is challenging, the company reports, while tracking each sample item's location and history is even more so. In the case of trial furniture, the company has tracked the items via bar-coded labels attached to each piece, according to Wilfried Weiss, avus Services' managing director, but the labels have often been either damaged or separated from the items, in which case the furniture must be re-identified and then re-registered into the system with a new bar-coded label. The bar-code-based system was time-consuming, Weiss reports, not just due to the labor required to scan each piece of furniture's bar code, but also the effort necessary to re-identify furniture with damaged or lost bar-code labels, and to then apply new labels.

In 2009, the company tested ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags as a possible alternative to the bar-coded labels, and the solution was deployed the following year using avus Services technology. The solution has expanded over time to include additional readers and tags. The firm has installed 12 RFID gates to date, and is tagging every item that it manufactures. Eight of the RFID gates are located within the Mötzingen warehouse, where goods are stored prior to being shipped to customers, and where re-usable trial furniture is stored. The gates consist of several fixed Feig LRU3000 readers installed to interrogate the RFID tags of each piece of furniture as it is shipped out to a customer or retailer, and again if it is returned. At the other gates, employees utilize a handheld Psion Workabout Pro 3 handheld device from Motorola Solutions to read each label's unique ID number as furniture passes through a particular gate. In both cases (fixed or mobile reader gates), the data is forwarded to avus Services software, which interprets the information and feeds it to Walter Knoll's back-end enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, where it is then matched with such details as the name of the customer receiving or returning each item. In addition, Knoll's workers use the readers at its factory in Herrenberg to read tags on newly manufactured goods passing from the point of manufacture through storage and then onto a delivery truck.

An Avery Dennison EPC Gen 2 UHF RFID tag is applied to each furniture item before it is upholstered; thus, the tags are not visible on the finished product. The upholster mounts the transponder close to the position where Walter Knoll's printed label will be placed following upholstery.

At the factory, Weiss says, the tags are typically read at least five times—from the point of manufacture to shipment to the warehouse. The reads indicate, for example, when the furniture is assembled and packaged for shipment, when it is placed within a particular storage area, when it arrives at the loading dock and when it is loaded onto a truck.

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